No genre of the last few decades can get on my nerves like the indie quirkfest. You know: those movies that keep poking you in the ribs to giggle at their cutely addled characters with their adorable eccentricities — I’m talking woe-is-us hipster comedies like “Pieces of April,” “Lars and the Real Girl” and the pop-crossover “Citizen Kane” of the genre, “Little Miss Sunshine.” The trouble with these movies is that even as they pretend to be lifesize, they’re too conscious about packaging their prefab weirdness; they’re edgy sitcoms minus the laugh tracks. But Rebecca Miller’s “She Came to Me,” which opened the Berlin Film Festival today, demonstrates how the indie quirkfest can be resonant and real, with characters who have soul instead of a chewy center.
The movie’s main figures aren’t just suffering from off-kilter dilemmas — they have problems we might characterize as everyday mental illness. The film’s gentle audacity is that it dares to posit mental illness as the new normal. We’re invited to laugh at what we’re seeing, yet Miller works in such a heartfelt and unassuming way that we’re never standing outside the quirks. The film says to its audience, “It’s okay, admit it. There are times in your life when you’ve been this messed up.” “She Came to Me” isn’t just about getting better — it’s about finding faith.
Peter Dinklage, with his furrowed unsmiling charismatic gravitas, leads us into the movie, and does it with a fusion of cunning and grace. Sporting a bushy and important-looking goatee, he plays Steven, a celebrity composer of operas who lives in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone with his wife, Pat (Anne Hathaway), and their teenage son, Julian (Evan Ellison), who is Steven’s stepson. Five years ago, Steven suffered a case of writer’s block and nearly crashed and burned; he recovered by marrying his therapist. If that sounds like an unhealthy resolution, it was (and is). And the fact that Hathaway’s Pat, under the professional crispness she maintains during the therapy sessions she runs out of her home office, is nursing a serious (and drolly detailed) case of OCD is just the tip of the dysfunctional iceberg.
Steven has descended back into his creative blockage, and while that’s a notoriously hard thing to dramatize, Miller does it by tipping the audience toward the despair this is really about. Dinklage doesn’t reduce Steven’s despondency to shtick. He shows us the in-grown plight of it, using his warmth to connect us to the agony of depression.
The odyssey he winds up on is a sly little slice of existential amorous adventure. Walking his English bulldog, Steven lands at a deserted Brooklyn dive bar at 11:00 a.m. and orders a whiskey. It takes him a moment to realize that there’s another patron in the house. Her name is Katrina, she’s nursing a pint while slunk into a booth, and she’s played by Marisa Tomei with the exact sort of slovenly moth-eaten desperate avidity you see in day drunks who’ll connect with you at the drop of an ice cube. Katrina is no deadbeat; she captains a tugboat based out of Baton Rouge. But she fastens onto Steven with the fervor of the dispossessed. He’s a man at such loose ends that he follows her right back to her boat (the way that Miller shot everything that follows on a real tugboat, with its overstuffed nooks and crannies, lends the episode a vivid atmosphere), only to learn that Katrina is a “romance addict” with stalking in her history and some serious 12-step work behind her. (Clearly, the work isn’t done.)
In the movies, even casual erotic hookups tend to be viewed through a sheen of stardom. This one has a hunger, and a touch of sleaze, that renders it much more relatable. Steven quickly makes his escape, but the episode has restored him. It cleans his pipes and gives him an inspiration: The tale of this impromptu pick-up becomes the opera he’s writing — with the added twist that in the opera, the character of Katrina doesn’t just seduce men; she kills and consumes them in the spirit of a feminist “Sweeney Todd.” It’s when we see the opera, which is luscious and commanding, that the design of “She Came to Me” fully kicks in. It’s going to be a passionate light-comic fable about the humanity of our pathologies, and about how maybe we can save ourselves from them by outing them.
Rebecca Miller made one of the great movies of the aughts, the breathtaking triptych “Personal Velocity” (2002), but in her three features since then, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” (2005), “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” (2009), and “Maggie’s Plan” (2015), although they starred actors as formidable as Daniel Day-Lewis (who is Miller’s husband), Robin Wright Penn, and Greta Gerwig, Miller’s filmmaking voice didn’t come through as strongly. “She Came to Me,” in its ensemble way, is a small film, but it has more of the yearning flavor, the blend of of sadness and hope that made “Personal Velocity” so intoxicating. It’s a movie that embraces coincidence with a karmic lyrical enchantment and that posits the next generation, in the form of Julian and his girlfriend, Tereza, as a wised-up alternative to Gen-X angst.
Harlow Jane endows Tereza with the romantic urgency of the young Laura Dern. But even as we’re noting the precocious idealism of this young love affair, it’s beset by a disaster that feels all too emblematic of our era. Tereza’s stepfather, a court reporter played with dour pent-up fury by Bryan d’Arcy James, regards her with a kind of dangerous possessiveness. When he learns that she and Julian have been sleeping together, he decides to use his law-enforcement connections to accuse Julian, who has just turned 18, of statutory rape.
This is no quirk to laugh off. It’s one more way that the surface airiness of “She Came to Me” touches a jangled nerve of reality. The way it’s all resolved becomes the engine of the film’s second half, with Tomei’s Katrina emerging as an ironic savior — though more than that, an ironic object of adoration. Just as Hathaway’s Pat, a lapsed Catholic who fantasizes about a nun’s spartan quarters as the ultimate “uncluttered” space, enters into a spiritual quest that’s located on the other side of her OCD. Katrina was a romance addict; she’s still a romance addict. But in the world according to Rebecca Miller, what these people have in common, and what they need, is not so much to grow past their addictions as to identify what those addictions really are: a skewed expression of their true beautiful selves.